Scripture states that there is none righteous other than God. As soon as you create a doctrine of righteousness that is holiness based on external actions, rather than the imparted righteousness and holiness of God… then you have stepped outside of Christianity and created your own religion.
Self-Righteous: convinced of one’s own righteousness especially in contrast with the actions and beliefs of others : narrow-mindedly moralistic (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
Self-righteousness comes in many forms. It’s not always related to religious people or groups, but it definitely conjures that image in our minds. Likely, it brings to mind the conservative Christian picketers with hateful slogans that designate the sin of the political day that will supposedly send the object of their poorly drawn cardboard sign straight to hell. However, no one has a corner on the self-righteousness market. You may just as well be a self-righteous liberal atheist who treats people of faith as if they are somehow mentally inferior for holding to moral absolutes.
I’ve been self-righteous at various times in my life, I think everyone has. I did what self-righteous church people inevitably do: inflict damage on others. I grew out of it. I got to know Jesus better and understand Scripture better… then… I had children.
At some point it dawned on me that, no matter how much my children misbehave, I’m not generally interested in tossing them into a lake of fire. I assume God is an even better father than I am, and he calls us his sons and daughters, so he probably wasn’t really that interested in doing that to me either (no, that does not make me a Universalist).
Since I love theology, and was raised in a church environment, what follows will apply mostly to spotting the cycle of behaviors either you or someone else may manifest as a self-righteous person in church.
Ground Zero: Self-righteousness always leads to dissension. It has no other choice. Self-righteousness must designate another party as somehow morally inferior to it. Self-righteousness takes a moral or religious view and distorts it, then it begin setting up a formerly nonexistent “Us against Them” scenario in its mind (politicians manipulate you all the time this way, but that’s for another post).
Campaign: Since self-righteousness originates from an extreme insecurity of self and ignorance of their status in Christ, self-righteousness will try to persuade others by interjecting this contrived “Us against Them” scenario into seemingly casual conversation. The next self-righteous campaign step is rallying a group of people around itself in order to give legitimacy to its self-imposed standard (yes, it is pretty much becoming a little cult within a church at this point). It is at this point, the dissension generally begins to become visible to others.
Withdrawal: At some point, the self-righteousness will convince this newly formed support group to withdraw from others in some way. Regardless of scenario, the self-righteous person will claim to be the victim of those they regard as immoral. Self-righteousness claims the reason for hardship or suffering is due to “making a stand” of some sort. Then, they become self-made heroes by persevering through this “persecution” that it personally concocted.
Collapse: Self-righteousness always wants justice pronounced on others, but grace extended to itself. Self-righteousness must ALWAYS have an object with which to fight. After withdrawal, it is inevitable that a new individual or organization will need to be targeted. It is generally at this point that the sensible among the self-righteous group will begin to understand how corrupt of a mentality they’ve been duped into… and will leave the Self-Righteous leader to move on.
“…not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” -Philippians 3:9